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Reviews

<em>The Locked Room</em> and <em>The Lighthouse</em>: Royal College of Music International Opera School
30 Jun 2018

An ambitious double-bill by the Royal College of Music

London may have been basking in the golden glow of summer sunshine this week, but things have been darkly gothic on the capital’s opera scene.

The Locked Room and The Lighthouse: Royal College of Music International Opera School

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Theodore Platt (Ben Pascoe) Beth Moxon (Ella Foley), Thomas Erlank (Stephen Foley), and Lauren Joyanne Morris (Susan Wheeler)

 

On Monday, ENO and Regent’s Park Theatre’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, invited us to ponder Jamesian ambiguities and the moral and psychological chasms which open up when appearance and reality, feeling and knowing, become confused. Subsequently, this double-bill by the Royal College of Music International Opera School trod a similarly equivocal line between imaginative fancies, both teasing and threatening, and cold pragmatic reality.

The unknowable evil of James’s ghosts and the unfathomable horror of the ‘cry of the beast’ which lurches through the fog towards the three lighthouse keepers at the close of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse conjure similar psychological and paranormal mysteries. But, the ‘nightmares’ presented by Huw Watkins and librettist David Harsent in their forty-five-minute opera, The Locked Room, are of a more prosaic, if no less tragic and disturbing, nature.

Ella Foley faces the misery of a loveless marriage and the frustrations of bourgeois life. Married to the boorish Stephen - a mobile-phone clutching businessman who’s desperate to seal a crucial City deal - Ella retreats into poetry; namely, the work of Ben Pascoe. The poet, Ella is astonished to learn from Susan, the owner of the Sussex home that she and Stephen are renting, has a permanent lease on a single room in their cottage - a room which the poet insists remains locked when he is absent. Retreating from her husband’s insensitivity, and violence, Ella enters into an imagined conversation with Pascoe; she is distressed to find that he has visited the house while she was out, but seeing that the poet has left his coat on the chair, she fantasises his return, and their subsequent spiritual and physical union.

The Locked Room was first seen in 2012 at the Edinburgh Festival and has subsequently been produced in the ROH’s Linbury Theatre, by Music Theatre Wales, and more recently by Staatsoper Hamburg. The libretto is ‘loosely’ based upon a short story by Thomas Hardy, ‘The Imaginative Woman’. ‘Loosely’ is an apt word; in fact, the programme booklet did not mention Hardy at all, director Stephen Unwin preferring instead to describe the opera as an ‘Ibsenite drama’. And, indeed, there is something of The Doll’s House, in the painful discrepancy between Ella’s expectations, hopes and desires and her practical situation.

But, Hardy’s story, while exposing the marriage of Ella and William Marchmill to be characterised by evasion and self-deception, and symptomatic of the nineteenth-century belief that matrimony was an exemplification of the ‘necessity of getting life-leased at all cost’, is as much a Romantic tale as a ‘modern’ one. Marriage is shown to be a tragically inadequate means of realising the aspirations of the individual’s creative, imaginative inner life. And, it is this absence of fulfilment which gives the short story its power.

In Hardy’s tale, this absence is represented by the elusiveness of the poet, Robert Trewe, who never actually materialises in the text, beyond Ella’s dreaming. We never see, nor hear directly from Trewe. As with The Turn of the Screw and The Lighthouse, it is the stubborn refusal of the ‘text’ to yield its secrets that is at the root of the narrative power. Trewe’s room in the Wessex boarding house where the Marchmills are lodged is not locked and Ella appropriates this room, ‘because [his] books are here’. A would-be poet herself, she is envious of the success and renown of his passionate and pessimistic verses, which seem so much stronger than her own feeble lines.

Despite frequent intimations that he might pass by the house, Robert Trewe never visits the Marchmill abode, though this does not prevent Ella indulging in a quasi-sexual encounter with his photograph, futilely seeking out the poet’s own lodging in a ‘lonely spot’ nearby. Eventually, she pens Trewe a note of admiration, signed as her alias John Ivy, which receives a short, polite response but initiates a regular, terse correspondence, and she is able to manoeuvre a possible meeting with the poet, inviting him to visit when he is in the vicinity. The meeting never occurs, and when Ella learns, shortly afterwards, that the depressive has killed himself, Ella - though the mother of three and pregnant with a fourth child - contemplates suicide. In the end, she dies in childbirth; some years later the resemblance of the boy to the photograph of Trewe which William finds among her possessions when preparing for his second marriage, triggers jealous suspicions and rejection of the faultless child.

I offer this summary of Hardy’s story not because I believe that Harsent is obliged in any way to reproduce his literary model without imaginative intervention and adaptation, but because it highlights one of the weaknesses arising from the changes that he has made. While their music-drama is taut and tense, Harsent and Watkins decision to present us with the living, breathing Ben Pascoe - an alcoholic depressive who makes use of Susan’s sexual services (“Is it me or the sex”, he asks; “The sex,” she replies), destroys the essence of the emotional tragedy: the corporeal manifestation of the imagined soul-mate - wearing turned-up jeans and a scarf tightly wounded around his neck - over-powers the delicate equivocation of the tale.

Transferring the tale to the modern-day seems to rob the characters of some of their fullness of depiction and thus further reduces the moral ambiguity. For example, Stephen seems too one-dimensional and crude. Hardy’s William may be uncultivated and indifferent to Ella’s needs and desires, but he is not cruel; Hardy describes him as ‘equable’ and ‘usually kind and tolerant to her’. Harsent’s Stephen rapes his wife - and Watkins provides the expected percussive assault. Hardy also shows that Ella, too, contributes to the sterility of their marriage: she is a ‘votary of the muse … shrinking humanely from detailed knowledge of her husband’s [gun-making] trade’ which she considers ‘sordid and material’. Her imaginativeness is not harmless; rather, it is tragically destructive, for William and their child as much as for herself. Harsent’s Ella seems entirely removed from any moral scrutiny. She does not die; instead, the heavily pregnant Ella, standing beside the gravestone of Pascoe, rejects her husband and retreats from the reality of marriage into her own imaginative cocoon.

It’s partly a consequence of the up-dating of the tale, but another problem, for me at least, is that the libretto is too prosaic, given that it is the imaginative faculty, as symbolise by poetry, that Hardy both celebrates and critiques, within the context nineteenth-century marriage. Like Strauss, in Capriccio, Hardy is essentially asking, what is poetry for? Stephen does ask Ella this question directly, but it’s not a question that the opera itself really attempts to answer; the score seems often to be quite detached from the drama ensuing on stage. Stephen is glued to his mobile phone and frets about deals that may “come good” or “tank”, ranting, “Jesus Christ! What a day I’ve had.” - though, Harsent’s quip that business is simply a matter of “telling the right lie at the right time” rings all too true.

These misgivings aside, Watkins’ score is a beautiful patterned tapestry of understated sentiment and colour - burbling woodwind, string harmonics, lyrical utterances from the horns - with occasional outbursts of violence from the growling brass. It was played with accomplishment by the RCM instrumentalists under Michael Rosewell.

And, the cast of four produced dramatically focused and confidently sung performances. Thomas Erlank swaggered belligerently as the crude financier, Stephen, singing with forthrightness and directness, while Theodore Platt did well to make Ben Pascoe a more sympathetic character than the text might suggest. Lauren Joyanne Morris delivered Susan’s quiet aria assuredly. Beth Moxon delivered Ella’s short, declamatory lines with conviction and fluency, while managing to make Ella appear convincingly troubled and ‘lost’.

The staging was minimal, perhaps by economic necessity rather than choice, but the central door which stood defiantly against a plain lit-backdrop of blue sea-sky was an effective motif, one which put me in mind of another ‘locked room’ - that at the heart of Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which presents another Jamesian mystery with a tragic denouement. Less pleasing was the incessant shifting about of assorted chairs - garden benches, arm-chairs, sofas - that were wheeled or carried briskly on and off stage by headset-wearing, black-clad RCM stage-hands. It didn’t enhance the depiction of the imaginative life.

Hannah Wolfe’s designs for The Lighthouse were similarly economical but more evocative and inventive. Particularly effective was the transition, in the opening Act, from the courtroom -represented by three chairs placed before the front-curtain from which the officers gave their disturbing evidence to the National Lighthouse Board - to the evocation of the locale of their account: a transition effected by the half-lifting of the curtain to reveal the foot of the lighthouse tower, swirling in mist and shadows, at the centre of which three unoccupied chairs, over-turned buckets, dangling ropes and lanterns, and other debris intimated unexplained disappearance and fear. Subsequently, as the officers ‘re-enacted’ their discovery of the abandoned island, and the curtain rose fully, we became increasingly immersed in their experience, only to be swiftly returned to the present with the announcement of the open verdict and the return to the front-stage courtroom.

Unwin and Wolfe couldn’t quite generate genuine, gripping horror in the opera’s final moments; there was plenty of mist and some shadow-inducing lighting, but the shifting shapes on the streaked back-drop and the sudden blaze of red light didn’t have me on the edge of my seat. That was not the fault of the three singers, though, who in both guises - officers and light-house keepers - performed with tremendous commitment, intensity and flair. Richard Pinkstone’s Act 1 narration was deeply engaging, and he brought a similarly affecting tone to his Act 2 song about a mysterious lover, imbuing the song with aching despair and distress. As Blazes, James Atkinson was certainly a fiery spirit, his falsetto flashes indicating psychological imbalance and anger in equal measure. Timothy Edlin thundered Arthur’s Salvation Army hymns of damnation and redemption with passion and rhetorical fervour. The playing of the RCM instrumentalists matched the tautness of the unfolding drama, as Rosewell dug deep into Maxell Davies’s striking sound-palette.

Overall, this was a characteristically ambitious and polished double-bill by the Royal College of Music International Opera School.

Claire Seymour

Huw Watkins: The Locked Room
Susan Wheeler - Lauren Joyanne Morris, Ella Foley - Beth Moxon, Stephen Foley - Thomas Erlank, Ben Pascoe - Theodore Platt.

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Lighthouse
Sandy/Officer 1 - Richard Pinkstone, Blazes/Officer 2 - James Aitkinson, Arthur/Voices of the Cards/Officer 3 - Timothy Edlin.

Director - Stephen Unwin, Conductor - Michael Rosewell, Designer - Hannah Wolfe, Lighting Designer - Ralph Stokeld.

The Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Wednesday 27 th June 2018.

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